An acclaimed writer and public intellectual, Dr Ahmed is the founder president of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, an organisation that works towards promoting the literature and culture of the char chapori (river islands and river banks) residents of Assam. Although he writes poetry, fiction and literary criticism, most of his work is focussed on the Char Chaporis settled along the Brahmaputra River.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview partially conducted via email and partially recorded at Dr Ahmed’s Hathkhowapara residence on October 21, 2019.
Shalim M. Hussain (SMH): Tell us about where you were born and what you remember of your childhood.
Hafiz Ahmed (HA): I was born in 1962 in Kopuha village [in the Barpeta district of Assam]. Our village was located on the bank of the river Beki [a tributary of the river Brahmaputra]. I remember the floods very well. There was no embankment then. Everywhere there was only water hyacinth. There were numerous famines then. Most of our food came from the river and the many ponds. Fish was in abundance. Around 1968 or 1969, the embankments were raised and the waters of the Beki and Bhelengi Rivers could not enter the village. As a result, baudhaan [a variety of rice] cultivation was started in the village. There were a lot of koi fish because of baudhaan cultivation. When we drew water from the well, fish would swim around the buckets.When we swam in the river during the floods, fish nibbled our bodies. After school we went fishing. If there were 18 members in the joint family, we knew that we had to catch 36 koi fish. If the fish were too small, we let them go. The annual Pushura festival [a harvest festival] was celebrated with great aplomb. We would collect money and go to Pushura Mela [fair] in Kadong to eat rasagullas, curd and muri [puffed rice]. Various kinds of pithas [rice cakes] were made then. Our mothers and grandmothers would stay up all night grinding rice into coarse flour for the pithas. Chicken would be slaughtered. These were all part of the winter festivities. We would sit around the fire for the pithas and the boiled meat served directly on our plates. By the time we cleared our plates, the warm vapours from the food would still surround us. We also went swimming in the Bhelengi River. We would let the cows free and cross the river by holding their tails. A gentleman named Mahananda Medhi lived across the river. Everyone called him nana [grandfather]. Nana ran a sweet shop that sold shingaras [samosas]. When we were children, shingaras were a luxury; so, we swam across the river in the afternoon because there were shingaras on the other side.
In those days a naukhela [boat race] was held in Mondia every Independence Day. My dream was to be a baishal [boatman]. After I completed my matriculation, I stood on a baish [boat] for the first time, held an oar in my hand and felt the thrill of being a baishal for the first time.
Then, we did not know that our community was discriminated against. That realisation came much later. My mother’s godfather was Girish Medhi. We went to his house, had meals with his family and maintained a very cordial relationship with them. If a tortoise swam into our pond, my parents would put it on our shoulders and ask us to take it to the Medhis, as for Muslims it is haram to sell tortoises or tortoise meat. If a cow from the Hindu village was maimed or blinded and could not be used for farming, it would be sent to our village. There was great communal unity then.
I completed my matriculation in 1978. That was one year before the Assam Agitation [a popular movement in 80s Assam, against migrants perceived to be ‘illegal’] started and that is when we began to understand what discrimination against our community was all about.
SMH: What agricultural festivals did you celebrate as children?
HA: Sharecropping was the trend those days. All of us provided our services as sharecroppers. There was no money, of course, but great food for all the labourers. If a poor person did not have enough money to hire labourers, the village would pitch in and get labourers or get foodstuff and organise a meal at his place, so that sharecroppers could work on his fields. These community meals were almost like festivals and happened during the sowing and harvesting season. My paternal grandmother passed away at a very advanced age. She must have been more than a hundred years old when she died. I remember her drawing alpanas [designs] with rice flour under the bed. My grandfather would teasingly call her a Bengali Hindu. Similarly, mats would be decorated with alpanas during the winter festival and pithas would be placed on them.
Another thing that I remember, and which should be helpful for you, is the shinni [prasad] of Kati. Beginning with Gasshi [Char Chapori version of the Kati Bihu festival], the Kati shinni was made by turns in different houses throughout the month of Kati. It was believed that the shinni of the Kati month kept cholera away.
SMH: How did you celebrate Gasshi as a child?
HA: We celebrated Gasshi similar to how it is celebrated now. During the day we would go from house to house collecting seeds, pulses and grain. In the evening we would go to the pond to collect tubers, hyacinth flowers and lotuses. Then we would arrange them in the courtyard. We had a well at home, so we did not go to the river or the pond for the early morning bath. I remember my grandmother dragging us out of bed very early in the morning and taking us to the well. Some of the Gasshi water [to be used for the rituals] was mixed in a bucket with warm water from the well. Our grandmother would then strip all the children, bathe us one by one, and pray that we remain safe from diseases and evil spirits in the coming year.
SMH: Tell us more about the Kati shinni.
HA: It was made throughout the month of the Kati. I remember going to other villages for the Kati shinni. It was not the spicy shinni [that is, khichdi] but the sweet one [that is, rice pudding]. After the shinni was distributed, the village would gather for a session of fakiri [Sufi music]. The fakir would bless water kept in a container. There was also the practice of ‘binding’ houses with spells so that ghosts and demons could not enter them. Cholera was the biggest scare then. The binding of houses was done by madaris [singer-magicians]. The madaris would come with a long bamboo pole and go from door to door collecting money and binding houses so that they were safe from inauspicious spirits.
SMH: You say that your grandfather would tease your great-grandmother for practicing Bengali Hindu rituals. Could you please elaborate on that?
HA: Well, the Char Chapori Muslims of Assam are a community mostly composed of migrants who came to the state over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Our cultural practices share a lot of similarities with the practices of rural Bangladesh. This is combined with the fact that our ancestors converted to Islam from Rajbongshi, Koch, Kaibarta, Namasudra and other castes and tribes. As a result, it is natural that several rituals which we still practise have come to us from our Hindu and tribal past. They may or may not be compatible with Islam but they are part of our cultural heritage and will not fade away so easily. Take the alpana, for instance, which is used to decorate the floor on Gasshi eve and with which my great-grandmother used to decorate the floor under her bed. Purists might argue that the alpana has no place in Islam; yet, it is part of our cultural makeup.
SMH: Please tell us about the importance of the Kati month among the Char Chapori Muslims.
HA: Kati is the season of mud, mosquitoes and flies. This is the time when the rivers begin to run dry. The monsoon is gone, the ponds are depleted and the beds of the ponds turn into mush. Mosquitoes and flies abound and several communicable diseases rear their heads. Cholera was the most dangerous of these diseases. Because of the lack of flowing water, people who do not own wells or do not have access to one are forced to consume water from stagnant pools. This makes them easy victims of gastrointestinal diseases. Thankfully, government intervention and education about sanitation has reached most families and people are more careful now about what they consume.
Gasshi is celebrated on the same night as Kati Bihu. Among the Assamese-speaking community of Assam the month is called mora [dead] Kati and the festival itself is called Kongali Bihu [Bihu of the impoverished], because the granaries are severely affected during this season. Before the banking system was strengthened in the country, people did not have any resources in Kati. This meant that sometimes the grain that had been saved as seed for the next sowing season had to be eaten. The price of rice went through the roof and hunger reached extreme limits during this month. It is because of the limited agricultural potential of Kati that it is also called amongoliyo [inauspicious month].
SMH: People are moving away from agriculture, rapid developments are happening in the field of agriculture, and we are not as dependent on the weather; in these circumstances, what are the future possibilities of festivals so closely tied with agriculture?
HA: It is apparent that unless we take active measures for the preservation of these festivals, they will die out. Last Gasshi, I put up a Facebook post asking friends to send photos and videos of the festivities. Responses came in from fewer than 10 villages, and these were not the more affluent villages. This is completely different from what it was like when we were children. Then every family commemorated Gasshi at their own home. Now the festival has been relegated to the most interior villages. The madaris are long gone and only older people, particularly from my generation and the generation before ours, remember Gasshi songs and all the details of the festivities. As you mentioned, there is a movement away from agriculture. In families that still practise farming, the landholdings have become smaller and productivity has increased. Sharecropping is almost nonexistent and very few boys work as farm helps anymore; they would rather work in construction in the city or run small businesses. Times have changed for the better—there is more money, more food, fewer people go hungry—thanks be to God. But since it is the poor who retain folk music and practices, the growth in affluence will only reduce the significance of agricultural festivals.
Even when we try to conserve culture, it mutates. Pushura is now a stage festival. Folk songs such as dehottatwa songs, palligeet and so on are sung on stage by young people. That is not how they were performed earlier. Now they exist as artefacts, as archival materials. Then there is the politicisation of stage events. Many of the Pushura festivals held all over lower Assam are patronised by local MLAs. There is competitiveness about who can organise the biggest, flashiest Pushura. There is big money involved but I do not think money can help culture grow.
The third obstacle to preserving festivals like Gasshi is something I would like to call the ‘turning up the nose’ effect. We have a tendency to look down upon our heritage. There is a historical reason for this. The Bengal-origin Muslim community of Assam has actively tried to assimilate with the ‘greater’ Assamese culture. What this means is that we have tried to give up all our own cultural practices and adopt the majoritarian culture wholeheartedly. In the process, our own pithas, our music, our dances and performances, everything has suffered. Integration with ‘mainstream’ Assamese culture is what we should aim for. Let us adopt some of their practices, let them adopt some of ours—this is how we build an inclusive and varied cultural environment. Giving up everything we have and simply accepting a different culture is not the right way.
As in all folk practices, technology has played a major role in the diminishing interest in Gasshi and other such festivals. Radio, television, cinema and now the internet has introduced us to cultural practices from all over India. We have developed a strong liking for them. At Pushura events today, singers like to sing songs by Bhupen Hazarika and Zubeen Garg because that is what the audience also wants. If we want the culture of the Char Chaporis to survive, we have to take more organised steps. A few interventions are happening but we need more.
SMH: So what is so unique about Char Chapori culture?
HA: We are a community that lives very close to nature. Our homes are situated near the river, our lives are largely agriculture-centric and since the chars are distant from urban centres, the influence of modernity is a little less pervasive. Most of our folk festivals are strongly tied to nature. So, Pushura welcomes the Push month [the first month of winter which overlaps with December and January of the Gregorian calendar] and Gasshi marks the beginning of the Kartik/Kati month [which overlaps with October and November of the Gregorian calendar]. However, as I mentioned earlier, the connection is weakening. Take the pastoral image of the rakhal [cowherd] boy under a tree playing his flute. Now that there are very few farm boys left, that entire culture is lost. Another thing you will notice in the chars is that Islam is practised in a very syncretic form. In our kobigaan [lyrical poetry], magongeet [agricultural songs], naukhelageet [songs sung during boat races], etc., Krishna, Ram, Hari and Allah all appear together. When we were younger, there was a bayati [singer] in our village who sang a song very often. In that song, Kali becomes Ma Fathima and Shiva becomes Hazrat Ali. It was a very curious song—the relationship between the two couples was maintained in the transference of a story of married love from one religion to another. He had many other songs of a similar nature. However, when I grew up, I found the song in a collection of poems by Kazi Nazrul Islam. That is when I learnt that the old bayati was not singing a folk song but a Nazrulgeet [songs composed by Nazrul]. This is something that happens in the chars a lot. Since most of the singers are illiterate, they do not really know the origins of the songs they sing. They end up treating a Nazrulgeet like a folk song—adding their own lyrics to it and mixing it with other songs.
SMH: What do you think is the future of the Char Chapori culture?
HA: We, the residents of the char chaporis, suffer a conflict of identity. For a very long time now, we have actively tried to be a part of the larger Assamese society. In the process, we have cut our roots and grafted ourselves to a different tree. There has been acceptance from some sections of Assamese society while other sections are still warming up to us. However, uprooting oneself from one’s roots might not be healthy in the long run. The conflict in identity could deepen even more. There is a saying in Assamese, thaan herale maan herai [If we lose our roots, we lose our dignity]; we should hope that that does not happen.